There are more boats on Britain’s canals now than at the height of the industrial revolution, and – yes, it’s true – Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice, but few know the exact figure. In fact, the intricate Birmingham Canal system extends to just over 100 miles, including two long tunnels, several aqueducts and even a waterway version of Spaghetti Junction. By comparison, the 26-mile system in Venice is nothing to write home about. Although we might grant Venice the upper hand on climate and architecture, and admit that, being a much smaller city, its canals are more densely packed. We’ll let it go.
The last 200 years have seen Birmingham rise from a small market town into the fastest-growing city of the 19th century, spurred on by a combination of civic investment, scientific achievement, commercial innovation and by a steady influx of migrant workers into its suburbs. By the 20th century Birmingham had become the metropolitan hub of the United Kingdom's manufacturing and automotive industries, having earned itself a reputation first as a city of canals, then of cars, and most recently as a major European convention and shopping destination. By the beginning of the 21st century, Birmingham lay at the heart of a major post-industrial metropolis surrounded by significant educational, manufacturing, shopping, sporting and conferencing facilities.
James Brindley, canal pioneer, was one of the early canal engineers who worked on some of the first canals of the modern era. He played an essential role in shaping the way canals were built during the Industrial Revolution. His vision was to use canals to link the four great rivers of England: the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. He did it and everything centred on Brum. The new industries powered by the new machines depended upon a modern transport system, to bring coal, iron and other heavy goods in and take the finished products out. The canal network was the key to making it all work.
In the 1830’s, the railways opened and competed for business with the canals. By the 1960’s, road transport and rail was quicker, and therefore cheaper, than the canals and they stopped being used by businesses. Cadbury's in Bournville were one of the last local businesses to stop using the canals. Their fleet of boats only stopped transporting their products in the 1960s. The canal area then became run down, the dirty water lined with derelict warehouses.
Since the early noughties, millions of pounds worth of investment has been committed to impressive regeneration projects all around our city, none more so than the canal hub of Gas Street Basin. Now the canals are enjoyed by walkers, cyclists, and narrowboat owners and they are a buzzing reminder of our unique industrial history. The historic Gas Basin canals sit comfortably next to Broad Street, one of the city's busiest entertainment areas. You can take a canal boat tour, have your dinner on a boat or sit outside a pub on the canalside.
As soon as the weather warms up, you should get out there and enjoy them yourself!
Sales Director of Warm Welcome Homestays - passionate about Birmingham and a long track record of working with students.